How to Structure a Research Paper
Remember that a paper is made of paragraphs and each paragraph supports, elaborates or defends a single claim. When you are thinking about the structure of a whole paper, you are thinking about the arrangement of these paragraphs, the way the claims are related. And this arrangement guides the reader’s attention through a series of experiences (reading paragraphs) that take about one minute each. You are deciding what the reader will experience and in what order.
Most papers will have an introduction and conclusion. In the introduction, you have to situate your paper in the world, summarise the state of your discipline, and present your results (or at least your research question). In the conclusion, you have to restate your results and their implications in the strongest possible terms to the most qualified reader you can imagine, namely, the reader that just got through reading your whole paper. Think of these two sections as “bookends” that keep all your other paragraphs neatly in place.
There are many ways to structure the body of the paper, but you do well to think about how you’re going to accomplish a number of important tasks. You will have to provide your reader with background information about the company, industry, region or practice you have studied. You will have to remind the reader of what they expect your analysis to show on the basis of existing theory. You will have to win the reader’s trust in your data by describing your methods, and you will have to use that trust to challenge your reader’s expectations with your analysis. You are trying to affect the reader in some way, so, in your discussion, you will have to reason with the reader about how to reconcile your results with their expectations, either by rethinking their theory or transforming their practice.
In general, think of your result as being framed by your theory and based on your data. The structure of a paper transmits a kind of “force” that affects your reader, changing their mind. Remember that the reader might resist this force and your structure has to be able to sustain this pushback. This is just criticism and it’s what a research paper is hoping for.
Interested in more?
- Check out the video “How to Structure a Research Paper” (10:48 min)
- Read more at the blog called Inframethodology